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Wellesley students, parents protest reassignment of high school orchestra conductor

Posted by Jaclyn Reiss  June 17, 2013 03:37 PM

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A decision by Wellesley school district officials to reassign a popular high school orchestra conductor to the elementary level has struck a bad chord with local students and their parents.

Dozens of Wellesley's student musicians and parents went to a School Committee meeting last week to protest the moving of Mary Alice McCann, who has headed up both the middle school's and high school's orchestra for the past few years.

The reassignment has McCann swapping out her high school duties for the elementary school, while continuing to head up the middle school's orchestra. The current elementary school teacher is slated to head up the high school's orchestra beginning this fall.

Kenyon Alexander, 16, said he donned the tuxedo usually reserved for orchestra performances to add emphasis to his plea to School Committee members, begging them to push for a reconsideration of the decision.

"She has given me knowledge that is irreplaceable to me, and that I haven’t gotten anywhere else," Alexander, a rising senior, said over the phone last week. "It's a crime to replace her because I want other people to learn as much as I did."

McCann declined to comment, but an assistant superintendent said that she had expressed interest in teaching in the elementary schools, an idea which her supporters discounted.

Alexander's mother, Nan Alexander, helped organize the School Committee protest efforts, bringing a stack of over 50 letters from students, recent graduates, and even other local conductors -- all pleading with officials to reverse the decision.

Nan Alexander said under McCann's direction, the program has been split into both chamber and full orchestras to help tailor teaching to each student's level.

The Wellesley orchestras have also recently been winning various gold and silver medals from the Massachusetts Instrumental and Choral Conductors Association, and McCann was named "Orchestra Director of the Year" in 2012 by the Massachusetts Music Educators Association, Nan said.

"She took a fledgling program and built it into a powerhouse," she said.

School Committee chairwoman Diane Campbell said committee members are not allowed to discuss personnel changes, and assistant superintendent Salvatore Petralia said the reassignment is due to "programmatic changes."

"Ms. McCann has expressed a strong interest in teaching at the elementary school level and, in fact, has ten years of experience as a successful strings teacher at the elementary level," Petralia said in an email. "Her continuation as the teacher/conductor at the middle school, and new assignment as teacher/conductor at the elementary level maintains her responsibility for two-thirds of the WPS strings program."

However, some local parents scoffed at Petralia's insistence that McCann volunteered for the elementary school job.

"I don’t believe that for one second," said Matthew Kelley, who has two daughters in the middle school's orchestra.

Kelley said during the middle school's spring concert earlier this month, McCann told the audience that there was no place else she'd rather be than with kids at the high school.

Cynthia Scott, whose son is a rising senior in the orchestra, said McCann had started planning this spring to bring the high schoolers on a trip to Europe next April, setting up an informational meeting a few weeks ago to talk to parents about the scope and cost of the trip.

"I know she wasn’t planning on leaving her job because she had met with the parents for a planning session about what this would entail," Scott said. "I don't think she sought out the change. I don't know anyone who has spoken with her about her wanting to move to the elementary school. I find [Petralia's response] shocking."

Kelley also said he didn't think teaching beginners matched up with McCann's demonstrated skills.

"At the elementary level, you're probably just trying to keep the kids on rhythm, and maybe working on dynamics. But at the high school level, it's a nuanced and complex art, and she just excels at it," Kelley said.

Scott adamantly argued that the whole situation could have been avoided somehow.

"Not knowing what the problem was, all I can say is, couldn’t there have been another solution without removing her from the high school?" she said.

Administration officials said the reassignment won't affect McCann's pay, and Petralia said conducting at the middle school level "represents a majority of her current assignment."

Petralia said although he could not comment on this particular reassignment, decisions on personnel matters like these originate in the subject's department, and are vetted by principals, department heads, curriculum officials, and human resources before the superintendent makes the final call.

Petralia also said the reassignment was final -- much to the chagrin of Wellesley parents, who said administrators should weigh in the public's outcry before making a decision.

"I'm outraged at the process," Scott said. "This all happened in secrecy behind closed doors. There was no opportunity for the rest of the community to voice our support."

Kelley agreed, noting that the students decided on their schedules for next year before knowing about the instructor switch.

"The way they did it was terrible and unfair to the kids, and betrays everyone's trust," he said.

And putting McCann in the elementary school after building a higher-level orchestra will seemingly end her local career on a low note, Kelley said,

"Putting her in the elementary school is just such a mismatch of skills," Kelley said. "It's like taking the starting pitcher for the Red Sox, and then telling him that he'll be pitching relief for the minors. It in no way makes sense."

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